Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Heavy Cold-War Eye of the Konvas 35

The Pontypool Crew Films Stayner

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By Tony Burgess

One of the fascinating virtues of higher technology is how it stokes the appetite for the lowest, most primitive processes. Look at the persistence of lo-fi sound recording in both independent and popular music. You can go even further back, to, say, impressionist painters who used the high technology of light, laying in careful beads of pure color to give the impression of "rough" work. Hi-fi has always been lo-fi’s supporting player. The Red One camera used to film Pontypool has already sparked the "can you spot the difference" debate that inevitably accompanies replacement technology, and that debate will be short lived. It’s a fine camera. It wasn’t the only camera used to film Pontypool.

Filmmaker John Price bought his Konvas 35mm movie camera off a guy in the Ukraine who also sold MIG Jet Parts. The Konvas is itself a kind of tank, used exclusively by Soviet Propagandists, and as Price describes, it still holds some of the smell of a KGB bunker. This is a camera that has never even met a frill. Just a heavy cold-war eye with an oily lid. Price pushes the process back further still by employing a practice utilized by amateur filmmakers since the 1920s - processing the film by hand in a bakelite tank known as the G3. The high contrast film stock used was actually designed as sound recording film, to create an optical version of a magnetic or digital sound source. Hand developing this film is a labour intensive process that takes a full hour to get one minute of footage. Compared to the Red One, this is almost like a Rayogram. We wanted to use John’s unique camera and process in a specifically meaningful way in an unusual second unit role.

In most Virus or Zombie films, there are the inevitable scenes of rabid mobs run amok. They may lumber or leap or fly but they are always an anonymous pack of, at worst, grinning zombie-fan extras or, more recently, streaks of not-really-there CG "humanoids." For Pontypool we wanted something antithetical to replace these scenes. One of the motifs of the film is the local radio station’s license requirement that it read obituaries every day. A list of real people who died today. Their full names. Their age. Who loved them and who was there when they died. It was out of these lists that we built our zombie hordes.

John Price and Bruce Macdonald came up to Stayner, the small town where I live, on a cold, snowy late winter afternoon with the mighty Konvas 35 in tow. Next we had to find our obituaries. We would use real people in town, people I knew, and film them in a rugged and austere portrait style. Quiet cold moments with these people standing where they live and work, looking out at us, observing us, silently guarding their identities the way real people do. These are Pontypool’s killed and killing masses. The stark black and white portraits are a perfect fit for a camera that was once used to frame Siberian farmers and frozen missile silos. It also feeds the film’s headless desire to have its own war themes.

Each member of the herd is someone I know. John and Ellen Craig, Stayner’s husband and wife gravediggers, their grandson and dog – The General. John Craig, known locally and fondly as Crackerjack, blows out my driveway in the winter and hauls my brush in the spring. Ellen and Jack laid a new 200-foot water pipe when ours burst last winter. We had them over for a Christmas dinner to thank them. When Jack drives past the graveyard, he likes to ask you if you know how many dead people are there.

Glen Connell and his family, who sell cordwood for winter stoves. His wife was part of the Wasaga Beach Community theatre. I played the King in The King and I. The scene in Pontypool where the community theatre group arrives in full make up and costume to sing on the radio is, though absurd, absolutely true. The Connell children stand in front of the wind shelter at the end of their long driveway. It’s painted like a school bus.

Ed Gatvackas, a Wasaga Beach Cab driver and the local DJ for buck and does, pictured staring down between two ancient willows, lent me his van so I could be at my mother’s side when she was dying. We looked after his miniature poodle, "Buddy," when it was his mother's time to go. She knit my son, Griffin, a baby-blue blanket when he was born. Ed is the only non-fictional character in my third book, Caesarea.

The Cooksey-Wright family are a local dynasty. Pictured in the film is Don Wright, a roofer. His children Tanya and Carla. Their children, too, Matt and Madison. The matriarch, Helen, was working at Wal-Mart that day so doesn’t appear. She looked after Griffin almost from birth until he turned two years old. When we see her at the jewelry counter she calls him "Griffy" and chides him as if he were her own son. Griff, now five, buries his head, shy and uncertain why she seems to know him so well. Matt and Madison still assume proprietary care over their baby brother, the way young children do, and for them, too, he will always be their Griffy.

The mother–daughter team who own and run the barber shop on Main Street. They’ve been cutting my hair for five years. Sitting in that chair is exactly how I discover what is going on in town. Who’s complaining about Ron Small’s blue tics, who has precipitously lost weight and who may or may not have the cancer. They call me "Stayner’s Stephen King" and invite anyone who walks through the door to laugh at me while I sit in one of two old monstrous barber chairs. They were the first people to tell me that my house is haunted.

In photography’s early days, it had to compete with painted portraiture. One of the perceived strengths of painting was that the viewer knew that both the artist and the subject were present for a period of time. The painting had to get to know the person painted in order to exist. Early portrait photographers went to great lengths to replicate this chain of evidence by keeping their darkrooms visible to patrons of the studio. The developing had to take place, like painting, in the same environment as the subject. Photography had to compete with a painter’s knowledge of the subject.

In using subjects whom I know personally, standing on their own property, as opposed to extras milling about a lot, and using John Price’s primitive capturing device instead of computer-generated flicker creatures, we tried to address this distant problem between old and new technologies, even if, and maybe especially if, it now seemed a bizarre and quaint anxiety. The Red One camera is as good as 35 MM film. Audiences won’t know the difference. Filmmakers may feel cheated that the great clunk of a reel fitting into a camera has been replaced by their own fidgeting as they wait for files to load, but there’s a bright light for even the meanest purist out there.

The Konvas camera and all of the lenses cost about what the Red One camera with its lenses, computers and accessories rents for for one day.

Tony Burgess

Tony Burgess is the author of four books of fiction. His second novel, Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW Press, 1998), has recently been made into a film.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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